The most remarkable things about dining at Cavan are the restaurant's charm and character. While restoring the 19th-century mansion, designers highlighted the historic home's natural decay, and it's hard not to be instantly seduced by the high ceilings, layered patina, glowing chandeliers and crimson banquettes that frame the downstairs dining room. Dinner plates custom-made by a local ceramicist are used alongside classic French water glasses and charmingly mismatched antique cutlery, details that add to a dinner party-like setting.
These delicate and deliberate touches have made dining a memorable experience since the restaurant opened in February. There's been a considerably steeper learning curve where other aspects of the restaurant are concerned, but those seem to be catching up.
There have been a few bumps in the road. Within a month of opening, the LeBlanc + Smith restaurant group — which also runs Meauxbar, Sylvain and Barrel Proof — announced the departure of executive chef Kristen Essig. Ben Thibodeaux took over the reins, and most of the preliminary kinks appear to have been ironed out. Service, which could be harried in the early days, is now mostly calm, professional and friendly.
Meals start with a plate of crunchy seasoned oyster crackers. Golden brown hushpuppies arrive nestled in whipped lardo and drizzled with spiced honey, one of the better local renditions of the Southern staple.
The menu is focused on coastal American cuisine and covers the seafaring bases, ranging from Old Bay-seasoned peel-and-eat shrimp to spicy scallop crudo topped with lime and pistou, and whole grilled Gulf fish topped with giardiniera (it works).
Gulf tuna carpaccio features delicate slices of the rose-colored fish fanned beneath dollops of pale green avocado cream, crunchy cucumber crescents and healthy drizzles of soy and olive oil.
Some dishes are executed inconsistently. On one visit, poached seafood salad was fresh and briny, brimming with lumps of crab and squid that tasted like they had just been plucked from the sea. But on another occasion, the salad was dull and weirdly sweet, full of wilted lettuce and limp radish slices.
Toasts could use some work. Perhaps if the bread were sliced thicker, the heaping toppings wouldn't soak through them as quickly. But a toast with roasted tomato and bacon jam is a sweet and smoky hit.
Some of the best dishes are those that deliver simple, rustic flavors, like the excellent baked half chicken, which arrives topped with a blanket of pungent garlicky pistou and simple green salad on the side.
In one entree, plump Gulf shrimp arrive swimming in an addictive butter and beer elixir tinged with rosemary and grilled lemon. Dunking accompanying charred bread in the sauce is a must.
Though the noise level can ap- proach deafening when the restaurant is packed, the upstairs bar pro- vides quieter refuge and is a good place to start the evening or finish with a nightcap. Despite some stumbles, the progress at Cavan is promising, and it's hard not to be charmed by the beautiful decay when dining here.